MADISON (WKOW) -- Madison's students are now three days into the school year -- and all of them started virtually.
It's no secret virtual classes aren't the same as those in-person, but for many in marginalized communities, virtual could very well mean impossible.
"There are some families who are going to make this transition and it's not going to be painful at all," said Jackie Hunt, founder and CEO of FOSTER of Dane County. "Then, we have parents for whom it's going to be a struggle... But then we also have families sadly living in their cars."
FOSTER stands for "Families Overcoming Struggles to Encourage Resiliency." Hunt works with families living through a spectrum of struggles.
"There are always going to be those who fall through the cracks or who don't fit in that traditional cookie-cutter," she said. "So the question is, how do we create opportunities and resources for those... we know for sure are going to fall further and further behind?"
Hunt is talking about the achievment gap -- and is concerned it could get wider and deeper this fall.
Urban League of Greater Madison CEO Dr. Ruben Anthony is too.
"Wider, in the sense that some of the kids who were not failing or falling into this achievement gap -- those who were on the fringes -- will now be in the gap," he said. "Deeper in the sense that those who were already failing are going to fail worse now."
An achievement gap is the consistent disparity in performance between groups of students -- such as students of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds.
"Historically, Wisconsin and Madison have had some of the largest achievement gaps in the nation," said Geoffrey Borman, a professor at Arizona State University who spent many years at UW-Madison studying the achievement gap here.
Borman says achievement gaps are, in-part, psychology -- withering confidence of a student who thinks they fall into a negative stereotype, which could come from society, peers or even teachers.
With the stresses of COVID pushing down even harder on disadvantaged families this fall, he says there will be impact to performance.
"Kids who don't have the same access to those resources within their communities and within their homes, they're going to suffer even worse losses," Borman said.
Virtual learning started abruptly last spring for Madison students. An MMSD survey of nearly 6,000 students found most students felt supported by the district, but Black and Latinx students felt less supported than Asian, multicultural or White students during that time.
"Systemic racism is embedded in every system that exists," said Hunt. She says this not to blame today's administrators or leaders for the systems that have caused the gap for decades, but rather to point out that now is an opportunity to develop new systems.
Last week, FOSTER held a forum online, "Black Education Matters," ahead of the start of the year to collaborate and come up with ways to support vulnerable students, like learning pods specifically for at-risk kids.
The Urban League is aiming directly at parents, hoping to launch a hotline to help them support their students and holding informational sessions to help them learn and understand technology.
"We want to be able to have workshops to teach parents how to use Zoom," Dr. Anthony said. "Workshops to teach parents how to access their kids' progress and assignments."
Professor Borman says one-on-one tutoring is far and away the most effective strategy for teaching kids, and he says now could be an opportunity for college students who opted to take the year off.
"What better way to take a gap year than to help some of these kids who are falling behind in school as a tutor?" he said.
MMSD has provided laptops and hotspots to families who need them. Superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins says this year, they'll be working harder to keep students fed and engaged.
"If they're not signing on or turning in their assignments, we're going to have to continue sending individuals out to their homes or contacting them in different ways," he said.
With online learning a reality for so many students, kids will more easily fall through the gaps -- which is why the community is working overtime to fill those gaps.
"There are going to be many families who don't meet the criteria or the services that are going to be provided already," Hunt said. "And that's where we're going to be creative and innovative."